Having heard about Ravine Gardens State Park in Palatka and having 80 degree February weather on a three day weekend, we thought we'd try a unique day trip to hike the ravines during peak azalea season. We found a remodeled St. Johns River downtown river front, a beautiful park, and a huge adventure at the ravines! Read on for a fun day trip idea with family!
Now this visit wasn't completely unfounded. I used to work at the St. Johns River Water Management District whose headquarters is stationed in Palatka. If you can believe it, I actually drove to Palatka every single day for almost a decade-yup, from Jax and Gainesville that's a lot of driving! I know all the local restaurants, I know many of the beautiful people that call the city home, and I've helped manage the natural areas surrounding the river near Palatka found in my book, Backcountry Trails of Florida. The name Palatka comes from the Timucuan word Pilotakata, which means crossing, related to crossing the St. Johns. Two Timucuan tribes once lived there and utilized the St. Johns for its livelihood. In the 1800's tourism, citrus, cattle and timber were the main industries and the city was known as the Gem of the St. Johns. It had world class hotels, tourism, steam boats passing through bringing travelers. However with the rise of the railroads on the coast diverting tourism away, a fire, and the 1895 freezes devastating the citrus industry, tourism and local industry declined.
Today, residents are working to restore the downtown St. Johns Riverfront to attract tourism to Palatka again. An old building was demolished and a brand new hotel was built, a waterfront playground was developed, and an extremely active marina attracts boaters. Herb Hiller, founder of the St. Johns River to Sea Loop Alliance, is working to support an agritourism loop to host fun events for the public on farms between St. Augustine and Palatka. He's bringing events to the city. I truly believe a few more downtown shops, restaurants, and fun will make the city be bustling soon again.
So with great weather, blooming azaleas, and a nudge from Mr. Hiller to make a visit, we set out on the trek to visit Palatka. With two sleeping kids we made the hour drive down on I-95 to SR 207 south, headed 19 miles through the farming town of Elkton past Rype & Readi Farms and Sykes Cooper Farms Corn Maze, past potato and cabbage farms of Spuds and Hastings, past County Line Produce and cattle ranches. We took a right onto Highway 17 and traveled 2.1 miles to cross the St. Johns River, and descended down the bridge into the town of Palatka!
The first thing we did when we came down the bridge into Palatka was take a left and look at the updated water front. The brand new hotel on the river is right next to the St. Johns Wetlands Center. It is open Tuesdays - Saturdays from 11:00am - 4:00pm and Sundays from 1:00pm - 4:00pm. It has exhibits that describe the history, water, and people of Palatka. It was closed, but we definitely want to return for a visit. We noticed the brand new playground right on the river so we made a mental note to back track there to play. And we saw all the boats in the marina and all the bass fishermen and made another note to come back and walk on the docks. We continued driving along the river and became really excited about the ancient 1920s homes in the South Historic District. So much beauty in Palatka overlooking the St. Johns River that I had never seen just driving straight through on US 17 towards the airport everyday!
We really wanted to keep looking at the river and the homes, but roads were closed for construction so we veered off and followed the detour to Ravine Gardens State Park. It was a busy place, serving as a community center for Palatka residents and being in the peak blooming season for azaleas that fill the ravines. We put our dog on a leash, put on some sunscreen, and made sure we had our snacks and fishing nets and set out to find the trail head.
Just past a fountain to the left of the visitor's center, you walk on a brick road and take a right and immediately hike down steps heading towards the first suspension bridge. The bridge spans a ravine that was created over thousands of years from spring water seeping up from underground. The ground erodes and creates steep hills that have plants unique to ravines. Bays, hollies, dogwoods, native rhododendrons and more are typical to this community. However in the 1930s, ornamental azaleas were planted. There are 18 types of azaleas today and they bloom over January - March. The plants and trees on the ravines are important to limit erosion down the ravines. What is left is steep topography unique to Florida and it's springs creating mountain style hiking that is rare in Florida!
We've seen suspension bridges in Pennsylvania and Alaska, but never before in Florida! It was fun for the kids to experience and they enjoyed walking across. My daughter said it was fun, like being in the sky. Our 3 year old found the spring we were crossing and immediately had to climb down the steps and use his net to catch minnows in the crystal clear water. We stayed for a bit, still 50 feet from the trail head, but we coaxed him along compromising by bringing his minnow in a jar of water with us the whole trek...
Immediately the trail became challenging with steps that lead up the ravines, down the ravines, and up again. No strollers can make it on the Azalea Trail through the ravines, but you can use a carrier or carry kids through tough spots or when they get tired. There is a rim paved road around the ravines for walking and driving when driving is allowed. Steps lead down from that road at points so you can see the views. If you have little ones, you can walk the rim road with strollers and then come down at the access points. My kindergartner did great on the steep trail and walked up and down the steps easily. Our unwieldy 3 year old wanted to be independent, but agreed to hold my hand. It is an extremely challenging hike to take caution while hiking. Be extremely careful with kids as the ravines are steep and the rock steps could cause them to trip and I was picturing an injury or someone tumbling over the edge the whole time. However, we never fell and the kids enjoyed this unique hike they had never experienced before.
The azaleas were in bloom, but not quite peak, so it was fun to be there during that time. There were colors of pink, red, magenta, and orange and other trees blooming, too.
We hit the next suspension bridge which was much longer and even more majestic. We enjoyed looking over the views of the spring and taking more photos. This suspension bridge cuts the trail in half, which is great for those hiking with families. If you don't cross, you keep hiking on a longer loop of the red Azalea Trail before looping back to the bridge. We walked across and took a left and walked down the steep stone steps to a circular pond that is bordered by cypress trees...and signage indicating alligators could be present. Some of the spring water flows down the spring run that created the ravines, but some is diverted to Palatka Water Works Environmental Education Center. It was here that the City of Palatka sourced and processed it's drinking water from the spring all the way until 1986. The building that remains provides educational tours, teaches about plants William Bartram found on his hike through Palatka and is open the first Sunday of each month from 1:30pm - 5:00pm and every Wednesday from 8:00am - noon.
After the suspension bridge and taking the steps down to look at the water and water works building, continue hiking on the paved trail along the spring. This leads you to the red Azalea Trail again to the right. At this point the trail gets even harder as you hike from the spring bottom all the way up the side of the ravine at a long slow incline. At this point we carried my 3 year old...and his minnow jar...all the way back up to the garden trail head. I earned my exercise for the day while coaching my kindergartner through the hot Florida day in February urging her to keep going. We made it out alive headed back to rest under pavilions with picnic tables and talk about what we had just accomplished. What a challenging and fun adventure at this unique spot!
Afterwards we drove back to the downtown riverfront to Angels Diner, the oldest diner in Florida. It is right at the foot of the bridge and is located inside what looks like a silver camping trailer. You could honk and eat in your car or next to it in picnic tables, or eat inside at booths or the diner counter. We ordered milkshakes that were so large we had to split them into two cups, a $6.99 fried shrimp dinner special, and pancakes for the kids. The fried shrimp was excellent and the milkshakes were fabulous, giving us the spring we needed to get back to our adventure! We learned about a local drink called the pusalow (pronounced puss-a-low) which is chocolate milk, vanilla syrup, and crushed ice southern specialty. We'll be back to try this yoo hoo style drink next time!
We headed back to the waterfront on the last leg of our journey. My son wanted to be right on the water's edge and watch the St. Johns lap against the rocks and watch the bass fishermen fish along water's edge. We enjoyed the playground complete with a hill you climb up to get to a slide, a zip line, and unique swing. The live oaks provided shade and the river provided a breeze and majestic views.